Cory Pols: Compassion from the Core

Wed, 01/25/2017

Denise came to UMass Amherst in her 20s, arriving from a summer job. There she had chosen a "camp name," a standard practice at Girl Scouts camps. After noticing the apple core image appliqued on her pageboy cap, Cory became her name that summer. "I liked the name itself and I liked what the name meant to me," she said. "It has to do with coming from the center, of being centered. Being in balance as much as possible has been a goal for me." As camp friends mingled with other friends over the years, D. Cory Pols, M.Ed. ’88, began to embrace the name in every setting.

Her initial goal in coming to UMass Amherst was to complete a master’s degree and doctorate in English and progress toward a career teaching literature. She gained an education in ways she never anticipated. As the Honors Program of about 200 humanities and social sciences students transformed into Commonwealth Honors College with nearly 4,000 students in just about every major on campus, Cory’s roles also grew and expanded into a 39-year tenure.

Ultimately, Cory discontinued her pursuit of the English degree. "Initially, I had no idea what it truly meant to be an English professor…I began to conclude that this path was not the best possible match for me." At the same time, she discovered "an aptitude for advising and an interest in academic policy" both of which became central to her career. Hired in 1977 as a graduate assistant in the Honors Program, she worked closely with the program’s assistant director on budgeting, providing courses, advising students, and many special projects. One of her first tasks was to review honors students’ grades and look for patterns to discern where students struggled. "That task," she said, "was one of many that helped to prepare me for my evolving career."

After the assistant director left, Cory "was the only one who knew how to run the mechanics of the office" so she was hired to take on those duties. She advised honors students and began creating opportunities for them outside of the classroom.

Eventually, she herself returned to the classroom. She completed a master’s program in organizational development, studying applied group dynamics, social issues, and counseling, all "to improve my skills as an administrator, manager, and academic advisor," she explained. As an academic advisor she aimed to make the university system more transparent, especially for undergraduates "with high intellectual ability who had yet to have the opportunities to discover and actualize their potential."

Recognizing her own experience as the first in her immediately family to earn a college degree, Cory saw her role as figuring out how to deliver challenging academics to students while surrounding them with the support to be successful. "Early in my career, the Honors Program had very few resources," she said, remembering how she had advocated for honors students to claim a conference room as a lounge space.

Her proudest accomplishments include collaboratively creating the Peer Advising Project which selected honors students to augment the program’s advising services. The program engaged peer advisors in self-discovery and reflection, and trained them in interpersonal communication and diversity issues. The goal was to ensure that honors students would encounter peer advisors who were receptive, inclusive, and welcoming. That program has endured and continues today. With similar goals in mind, Cory coordinated a multi-day orientation program for honors students, arranged community-building events to connect the many campus departments that support honors students, and spearheaded forums to encourage underrepresented students to "not just survive but thrive at the university."

Former Commonwealth Honors College Dean Linda Slakey, noted "I owe much of the college’s ability to make progress in its goal of including all students to things I learned from Cory."

While she gradually became known to all as Cory, she became known for compassion too. Compassion, Dean Slakey stated, "is in essence a commitment to seeing things as they are. As an advisor [Cory] had a great gift for projecting support of each student she worked with…It is literally hard to imagine what Commonwealth Honors College would have become without her steadfast contributions over the decades."